Consumer PR talent increasingly hard to find

As consumer practice becomes more specialized, agencies are finding the search for qualified personnel to be a bit like the hunting of the snark.

As consumer practice becomes more specialized, agencies are finding the search for qualified personnel to be a bit like the hunting of the snark.

What used to be a generalist's job now requires talents as refined as those of skilled healthcare PR pros. The chase has also led agencies to evaluate new-talent pools and redefine job requirements a lot more rigorously.

Gail Heimann, president of Weber Shandwick's New York office, says the new reality is that consumer PR is multidisciplinary, a "high-fusion mix of tactical elements that support a brand's broader strategy." She adds that the palette of skills a candidate needs for that kind of job points to someone with both interactive technique and the savvy to integrate interactive with traditional.

"It could take someone who knows viral stuff and has incredible logistical savvy to pull off something that's not only happening in five or 10 key markets, but might be happening around the globe simultaneously," she says. "It takes a team that brings different skills, and it may take, more than ever, a person who's willing and able to be flexible and versatile enough to get the new reality and deliver on [it]."

Bob Seltzer, leader of the marketing practice at Ruder Finn, New York, says he's noticed the trend.

"It's extraordinarily hard to find people, but I haven't been able to figure out what the reason is behind it," Seltzer says. "The consumer PR field is growing, and there's a lot of opportunity, and a mindset [of] specialization helps."

Seltzer says RF is looking at internal and external sources, and relying heavily on word of mouth.

"We're doing a lot of, "Do you know people?" and we're asking clients and others far more than we ever did because the need is strong and the pool is small," he says.

Seltzer notes that the real challenge is getting senior account executives and account executives with experience. But he adds that relying too much on a "time in the saddle" parameter is risky.

"Agencies are promoting people probably a little too early," Seltzer explains. "So you're seeing people with two years' experience saying they are SAEs - and they are by title - but you have to question how much depth and breadth they bring to the table. There has been this 'upscaling' as a result of this."

Doug Spong, managing partner at Carmichael Lynch Spong, Minneapolis, likens consumer PR to corporate, public affairs, and healthcare. "Gone are the days when PR generalists can come in and do consumer work," Spong says. "Ten or 20 years ago, people used to look at those who did consumer PR as not really having any particular expertise. That has changed dramatically where some consumer practitioners command the same compensation and respect given to corporate, public affairs, and healthcare people."

Spong says his company is looking at the "coveted talent at the best PR firms" across the country.

"We want people who have left a trail of success at other firms and have had a hand in a big, well-recognized consumer launch," he says. "The other resources we're looking at is... people who have worked a few years in PR and went back to get their MBAs. The third area is really strong consumer and brand marketing people who have been with corporations."

Weber's Heimann says: "Part of it is handling the new tactics and methodologies... and part of it is a deeper understanding of the target communities important to our clients. Those are the two key pockets as we grow as a discipline."

Key points:

Consumer PR has become multidisciplinary

Firms must expand their talent search beyond the typical sources

The consumer is the driving force, so people with expertise at reaching and influencing consumers make good candidates

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